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Armenia: Eight Dead, State of Emergency Declared

Some of us knew that this was bound to happen since last October when the former president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, made his political comeback in time for the 19 February 2008 presidential election in Armenia. That is, that there would be post-election clashes and blood would be shed. As it happened, in the following months the language of hate and confrontation was used almost constantly by nearly all candidates contesting the vote, and in the past week it became obvious that it was only a matter of time before our worst fears would be realized.

On Saturday 1 March, the inevitable came true. At least eight people died in clashes between police, soldiers and opposition supporters. Shops were looted, cars set on fire, molotov cocktails were thrown, and in addition to the fatalities known so far, 16 servicemen and 18 protesters were wounded in shooting between the two sides. Each side blames the other and protests their innocence while the majority of residents in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, resigned themselves to the worst case of election-related violence in the country's short history as an independent state.

Burning Police Vehicle

The clashes were sparked by the dispersal of the ten-day unsanctioned occupation of Yerevan's central Liberty Square by supporters of the former president turned radical opposition leader protesting the outcome of the presidential election which international observers declared “mainly democratic,” but which others considered should have gone to a second round. Marilisa Lorusso's blog sets the background for the dream of a pro-democracy movement that soon turned into a nightmare.

In Armenia the day of reckoning came. Anticipated by some politically- flavoured arrests of Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s supporters, the rally in Opera Square of the opposition has been dispersed with force. […] The totally peaceful rally, at the moment of the police intervention – early in the morning –, was not even threatening the traffic, let alone the State security. […].

For sure, from then on, the situation only deteriorated, with increased polarization and radicalization.

New statements, from opposition forces, previously ready to move against the government on legal bases, like the Heritage party, marked a fiery condemnation: […] Unfortunately these words, uttered the 1st, precisely foresaw new violence in the streets, that went far beyond the worse expectations.

Demonstration

To begin with, however, some local bloggers from the Armenian Diaspora hoped that Ter-Petrossian's small support base backed up by others in civil society and the media might bring about new hope for the country. Even so, like many others fearful of violence on the streets, Raffi N at Life in Armenia was uncertain where everything would lead.

The events started at 6:30 a.m. this morning, by 3:00 p.m., we saw the first police press conference aleging that they only attacked after the demonstrators started throwing rocks and yelling out words to overturn the government… They showed footage of guns and sharp objects collected from the surrounding areas of the Opera claiming that they were tipped on he arrival of truckloads of arms and other metal harp objects. […] I am not sure what all this will lead to, but I know that Armenia will not have the same apathetic society it had for the past several years.

I am hopeful that the people will prevail and will build its country to have a more fair and just political and judicial system… or at least it will die trying!

In retrospect, perhaps mention of people dying was unfortunate because by the end of the day many did. Local bloggers, perhaps understandably, became emotional at the sights that confronted them before it erupted into violence and engulfed streets in the center of the capital. Others, such as Notes from Hairenik who had previously dismissed and criticized attempts at provoking a revolution, suddenly became supportive of attempts to come to power on the streets.

[I]f the people want change, if they are willing to sacrifice their lives for that change in the spirit of revolution, and if they think that Ter-Petrossian is the one who lead them towards victory and prosperity, then let them fight, let them reach their goals.

Eventually outnumbered and out gunned, demonstrators never stood a chance against the military, and a state of emergency was declared in the capital. After finally being told to withdraw and return to their homes, about 60 protesters remained and declared Ter-Petrossian a traitor. The Armenian Observer describes the scene of what ended up a battleground.

Riots in Yerevan. Protesters and police hurt. Grigor Lusavorich street blocked by riot forces. People are carrying metal sticks, bottles filled with burning substance – to be used as hand granades. Busses and other means of transportation have been used to create barricades, blocking all entries to the Grigor Lusavorich street.

Walking on Lusavorich street feels like in war – police are firing in the air. Organized groups of rioters are up on the barricades. Some are carrying hemlets and shields obviously taken away from the riot police.

The next day, however, as Yerevan woke up to 20 days of the state of emergency regime, all was quiet although devastated in places. The Armenian Patchwork posts photographs from the morning after a night of rioting while A Fistful of Euros paints the picture of the Armenian capital with soldiers on the streets.

Yesterday morning, the government ran out of patience, declared a “state of emergency”, and sent a wave hundreds of police into the streets, followed by a second wave of soldiers. […]

But that was yesterday. Last night Levon Ter-Petrosian, the losing presidential candidate, issued a statement asking his supporters to stand down. Today…

…well, it’s quiet.

Walking around downtown, most of the shops were closed. There were few cars — much of the center was closed to traffic — and maybe 50% of the normal pedestrian traffic, dropping to more like 10% in the big central squares. But there were people, and while the atmosphere was funny, I didn’t get a sense of imminent violence.

[…]

The general mood of the city is… subdued.

Meanwhile, as the reality of an emergency situation which restricts the media and the dissemination of information kicked in, The Armenian Observer reported that several pro-opposition news sites had been blocked inside the country and posted information on how people could circumvent the restrictions. Pro-Ter-Petrossian supporters outside the country such as Unzipped and Nazarian instead started to take over the role as the main sources of information on the situation via blogs.

The new restrictions also hit Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in Armenia who are now reportedly prohibited from traveling between Yerevan and sites outside of the capital. One of the PCVs at Kyle's Journey in Armenia posted an entry on how the post-election tension has affected them.

With the country essentially on lock-down, Peace Corps has put us on high alert and is requiring us to stay at our sites until further notice. Outside of Yerevan (and Noyemberyan is no exception), things are functioning as normal, and we have not had any problems with civil unrest here or in our region at all. Schools and businesses are open, and we are going forward with life, albeit with a black cloud looming over the country. […]

[…] We will see in the next couple weeks, but until then life will remain tense and uncomfortable. It can only get a lot better, or a lot worse, from here. Hopefully this State of Emergency will do the former and at least keep people off the streets. It has, of course, disrupted some things in my life (for instance, my friend was supposed to come teach a class here this week, and my skiing trip was canceled) but I am safe and not worried about the situation getting worse here in Noyemberyan.

Outside of the country, bloggers such as jibs at TOL Georgia who recently experienced their own state of emergency in November drew comparisons between the unrest there and in Armenia.

It’s amazing how closely the Armenian case resembles the crisis in Georgia just a few weeks ago. Elections contested, thousands in the streets, threats from all sides, fear in the air.

[…]

That in Georgia similar developments did not take place, is a credit to both authorities and the opposition. One blink or a provocation, and chaos would be unavoidable. And Georgians have bitter memories of civil war just 15 years ago…

Back to Armenia and its Diaspora, however, and the polarization and emotions are running high. It's probably therefore best to end with an entry from Harmick at Blogrel who laments the situation in the country and feels helpless as the standoff continues.

OK, so we see this all the time. We see it in Paris, we see it in Palestine, we see it in Iraq, Georgia, and (often with a quiet shake of the head) we see it in Turkey. Usually, the inbuilt Armenian arrogance kicks in and I shake my head and say to myself ‘whatever Armenia is, this wouldn’t happen there ‘… Now I guess I don’t have that safety net. It does happen there, and it makes me feel utterly sick.

[…]

What I can’t accept is the thought of Armenians fighting each other. It just doesn’t work for me. It hurts, it’s like watching two members of your family hitting each other. It just shouldn’t happen, it makes you want to look away.

It hurts to see soldiers who have worked to protect what we value and boast about so greatly, just attacked by drunks or brainwashed civilians lulled into a false sense of “revolution”.

It hurts to see the city which we have watched grow and develop into a pleasant, safe environment to be left so bruised and tattered.

To the average European watching the news, we are just another backward, ‘revolution’ driven former Soviet republic, that still cannot understand the concept of an election.

It hurts because we always managed to stay away from this, and it hurts even more that I , and many other Armenians around the world, feel helpless to stop it.

Unfortunately, although calm has now descended upon Yerevan with the introduction of the state of emergency it is still uncertain where things will lead. News reports indicate that the opposition continue to threaten more protests while the military says it will use force to prevent such demonstrations. Hopes for mediation between the opposition and government have been dashed and the saga continues.

Protesters

Photos: © Onnik Krikorian

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